When the conductor walks out onto the concert stage, the audience witnesses the culmination of a long and complicated process that’s often as intriguing as the performance itself: choosing and preparing the program.
Concert programming is an art, and Seattle audiences already know that the Seattle Symphony’s music director designate Thomas Dausgaard is a master at putting together repertoire and soloists in sometimes surprising configurations. His upcoming concerts April 11 and 13 in Benaroya Hall will bring together one of the most beloved of all symphonies, Dvořák’s “New World” (Symphony No. 9, composed in 1893); a relatively rarely heard concerto (Szymanowski’s folk-influenced Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1933) and an even rarer performance of George Walker’s 2016 Sinfonia No. 5 (“Visions”).
“Dvořák explained that he had taken inspiration from music of Native American and African American people,” Dausgaard wrote in an email exchange. “I think he would have been delighted to be programmed with both Szymanowski’s 2nd violin concerto imitating folk music and Walker’s Sinfonia No. 5 quoting spirituals and songs, yet in a very personal, dramatic language.”
Dausgaard, who succeeds Ludovic Morlot as Seattle Symphony music director this fall, considers both Dvořák and Walker to be natural storytellers. The Walker work, composed as a single long movement, features not only five singers in speaking parts, but also a visual element: a video showing the coastline of his beloved Charleston, South Carolina, with its “timelessly turning waves,” as Dausgaard puts it.
Walker, a gifted composer, performer and professor who died last year at 96, was the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. He was also the first black concert pianist to solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the city where he had become the first black graduate of the esteemed Curtis Institute of Music.
But those early successes “were meaningless, because without the sustained effect of follow-up concerts, my career had no momentum,” he told The New York Times. “And because I was black, I couldn’t get either major or minor dates.”
He turned instead to composition.
With his Sinfonia No. 5 (“Visions”), he also found an outlet for his sorrow and horror at the 2015 massacre at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a 21-year-old white supremacist. Nine churchgoers were murdered; three more were injured.
“Musically, dramatic gestures lead to angry exclamations, and the occasional lyricisms are often interrupted — like you would not be allowed to finish a sentence. It creates a sense of alienation and danger — you never know when violence will strike, like it did in Charleston,” Dausgaard said of Walker’s composition.
Dausgaard also notes the sorrow that underlies much of Dvořák’s jaunty tunefulness: This very Old World composer felt torn between the new America and his beloved Bohemian homeland. “The finale of Dvořák’s symphony seems to express deeply felt desperation and anguish,” Dausgaard believes. “Sure, it ends in Major, but only at the very last moment, and on a chord that glides softly and mysteriously away into silence — not unlike the final dissonance in Walker!”
Between those two works comes the 20th-century Violin Concerto No. 2 of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, who — like Antonín Dvořák — made liberal use of the folk traditions of his own culture. Seattle audiences will hear the 1933 concerto performed by a young Scottish violinist who is already an expert in this repertoire: the Scottish star Nicola Benedetti, who recorded Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 at the age of 17.
“Szymanowski’s family estate in the southernmost part of today’s Poland, Zakopane, was where he composed his 2nd violin concerto; the “highlander” folk music of this area — the Tatra Mountains — had a special attraction to him, as heard in his ballet ‘Harnasie’ as well as in the concerto,” Dausgaard observes. “The folk music there has its roots in music from Polish, Ukrainian, Czech and Slovak shepherds.”
These concerts will mark the first collaboration between Dausgaard and Benedetti, a 31-year-old violin star who received the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) award in Buckingham Palace in March. Her recent reviews have been rapturous: The Times (London) wrote, “It was thrilling to hear and watch Nicola Benedetti in a truly risk-taking performance that lived so much in the body and fused the sinews of the violin and the nerve-system of the player.”
Dausgaard is looking forward to their collaboration: “It will be my first time making music with Nicola Benedetti. I know that we share a passion for Szymanowski’s music and I am delighted that she has added his very different 2nd concerto to her repertoire. I am excited about our musical meeting in this appealing work, which seems to joyfully oscillate between hallucination and vigorous dancing.”
Seattle Symphony in a program of Dvořák, Walker and Szymanowski, 7:30 p.m. April 11 and 8 p.m. April 13; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St, Seattle; $22-$125; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org